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We're a 'big, messed-up country,' and Ira Glass is into that American life

From the time Ira Glass started “This American Life” in 1996, he has been stepping out of the studio and touring the country to promote his program at radio stations and give talks in theaters.

The 60-year-old broadcaster, who developed the longform broadcast style that is the foundation of many of today’s most successful podcasts, will be speaking July 20 at the Chautauqua Institution. During his presentation, Glass shares tales and lessons – “Hard-fought things I’ve learned over the years,” he said in a recent telephone interview – with an emphasis on his approach to narrative storytelling.

Here’s part of our conversation:

Question: Despite the constant quick-hit stimuli we all have coming at us through our phones, it feels like we still love long-form material, maybe more than ever. Do you see that?

Glass: That’s true. I think it’s true for television, too. The biggest cultural thing going is binge-worthy television shows that take 12, 16, 18, 30, 50 hours to finish. The idea that we have these really short attention spans because we’re all on our phones all the time is a really incomplete reading of what’s happening and a primitive reading of what’s happening. The greater truth is we’re all pretty flexible and it’s nice to have something to read when you’re in an elevator or waiting for your food. And it’s also nice to settle into a nice story.

Q: During your talks, is it more fun to add new material from evening to evening?

Glass: Absolutely always. Maybe that’s because I’m used to [sharing new material] each week on the radio. But it’s also because I have friends who are actual actors and do the same thing in each show. It’s a real craft to feel alive inside of it. Even presidential candidates: You see them say the same thing over and over. Elizabeth Warren, great performer. She tells certain stories with such feeling each time, but it’s hard. It’s unusual that a person can do it well.

Q: You travel and meet people. Is America actually as divided as the news makes it seem?

Glass: We’re as divided as it seems on the news, for sure. That’s not fake news. That’s totally real. But the lived experience of it is way less cartoonish than you get from the news, and people don’t fit into categories anywhere as easily as you would think from the news.

It’s interesting talking to Trump voters who like Bernie, and who are giving a side eye to Warren. You know what I mean? It’s all a little messier than maybe you would get from the news.

The thing that’s so striking is just how there are two narratives of what’s going on in the country — and that people really do pick. It’s rare to find somebody who’s standing in between the two saying, “CNN was right on this one, but I’m with Fox on that one.” I’m not meeting that many people in a deeply complicated middle ground, which is depressing.

Q: Is this a Trump-era dynamic, or does it extend back?

Glass: It’s not a Trump-era dynamic, no. This is a building dynamic over the last 15 years. Basically, Fox News and then a bunch of other right-wing information outlets just became very good at their jobs. This really starts with Rush Limbaugh in the ‘90s, and it just builds and builds until the point where we have two narratives. This existed before President Trump, during President Bush and the lead-up to the Iraq War, and it will definitely exist long after President Trump. This is the information environment we’ll all be in for the rest of our lives.

From my point of view, I don’t have a problem with people who are right wing or left wing. What I hate is the difference between the fact-based media and the non-fact-based media. I just think it would be really interesting for somebody to do a version of the Fox Network that was completely fact-based, and try to make it compelling. But that doesn’t exist.

Q: Here in Buffalo we’re sitting right on the Canadian border. Something that is apparent —

Glass (humorously): Build. A. Wall. (He lightheartedly apologizes for interrupting.) Sorry!

Q: When you cross that border, it seems people in Canada are a little more relaxed and much more accepting of each other. On this side of the border – to our point earlier – we’re more divided.

Glass: I like it when people get along and are more tolerant of each other. Those are to my tastes; I very much prefer that. But we invented rock 'n' roll, we invented hip-hop, and we invented cinema the way it exists around the world. We invented the internet. We’re a big, messed-up country of people colliding with each other who don’t agree about stuff, and I’m into that too. I don’t feel jealous of Canada – except for their health-care system.

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